A poll released Thursday suggests that Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II's campaign is struggling to reach voters on key points as the Virginia governor's race hits the home stretch, perhaps explaining a new line of attack the Republican's campaign began this week.
Mr. Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, for months has homed in on three issues related to Terry McAuliffe — the Democrat's ethics and business record, his support of President Obama's health care overhaul, and his positions on energy policy. But the survey from Quinnipiac University says voters give higher marks to Mr. McAuliffe on honesty and trustworthiness, his ability to handle health care, and energy and the environment, among other issues.
Mr. McAuliffe, a businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, leads Mr. Cuccinelli in the poll overall by eight points, 47 percent to 39 percent, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis taking 8 percent.
Each of the major-party candidates has tried to make jobs and the economy the central themes of their campaigns, and the polls show them fighting to an effective draw on the issues. Despite Mr. McAuliffe's overall lead, 44 percent say he would do a better job handling the economy and 43 percent said the same of Mr. Cuccinelli. Forty-four percent also say Mr. Cuccinelli, who has outlined a $1.4 billion tax-cut plan, would do a better job on the issue of taxes, compared with 40 percent for Mr. McAuliffe, who has knocked the Republican's plan for being too vague.
Mr. Cuccinelli on Wednesday shifted his message, delivering an analysis saying that funding all of Mr. McAuliffe's stated priorities would cost at least $14 billion and translate to a $1,700 tax hike for the average Virginia family.
The McAuliffe campaign said the analysis drew on "fabricated numbers" and dismissed the attack.
The race, which has been unusually nasty for the generally staid commonwealth, has been defined by the candidates' lambasting one another's ethics and moral standards and their fitness to hold essentially any elected office, let alone governor.
"The tone and tenor of this campaign has been negative and very personal, and overcoming it will be the first big challenge for the new governor," said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University's Wason Center for Public Policy. "This kind of campaign threatens to draw Washington-style politics down to Richmond, something nobody wants."
Most recently, Mr. Cuccinelli assailed Mr. McAuliffe for investing with a Rhode Island estate planner who profited from life-insurance policies issued in the names of terminally ill people without their knowledge. Mr. McAulliffe's campaign said Wednesday after his participation was disclosed in the course of a federal investigation that he had contributed $74,000 to charity — the equivalent of what he received from his connection to the scheme.
Mr. McAuliffe has hammered Mr. Cuccinelli over accepting $18,000 worth of gifts, some of which he did not initially disclose, from a wealthy Virginia businessman. Mr. Cuccinelli initially said he couldn't return gifts such as a plane ride and a turkey dinner and later that he and his family weren't in a position to repay the cash equivalent of the gifts. But the Republican eventually donated $18,000 to a Richmond-based charity.
By a narrow 4-point margin, 43 percent of voters say Mr. McAuliffe would do a better job on ethics in government.
On health care, Mr. McAuliffe has said multiple times that he won't sign a budget in Virginia that doesn't include an expansion of Medicaid as part of Mr. Obama's health care overhaul. He's walked back the comments, saying he simply plans to ask the General Assembly to send him a budget with the expansion.
Mr. Cuccinelli's analysis said Mr. McAuliffe's projection that the revenue expansion would net the state $500 million is wildly optimistic, citing independent studies that put the number at around $50 million to $60 million annually. He's also blasted Mr. McAuliffe for supporting the overall health law, which has suffered a series of high-profile stumbles since enrollment in health care exchanges began Oct. 1.
But the poll shows voters are split 49 percent to 47 percent on their approval of the law and that 47 percent say Mr. McAuliffe would do a better job on health care, compared with 38 percent for Mr. Cuccinelli.
Republicans have also accused Mr. McAuliffe of supporting a "war on coal." The Democrat recently came out in favor of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at curbing carbon emissions that Mr. Cuccinelli says could put the industry, vital in the southwestern part of the state, out of business.
But 48 percent say they trust Mr. McAuliffe more on energy and the environment, compared wit 35 percent for Mr. Cuccinelli.
"Terry McAuliffe's strategy has been to paint Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as too conservative to be Virginia's next governor," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Today, almost half of Virginia voters agree, more than the 38 percent who say McAuliffe is too liberal."
The survey of 1,180 likely voters in Virginia was taken Oct. 2-8 and has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
Voters do not register by party in the state, but 32 percent self-identified as Democrats, 27 percent said they were Republicans and 35 percent said they were independents.
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